Saturday, November 16, 2019

We Got the Beat: Investigating Ethnomusicology

Image Source: Pitt Rivers Museum

Like so many previous postings today’s blog post was actually inspired by real life events (which are discussed in another blog post).  These events reminded me of a scarcely discussed area of anthropological inquiry that is very familiar to everyone but hardly critically assessed.  This is the field of ethnomusicology, which will be further discussed in regards to what it is, how it provides greater insights into what it means to be human, and what specifically can be done in regards to applied anthropological undertakings.

Ethnomusicology is the study of various musical styles and genres and their social and cultural contexts, expanding from just the study of the form of music to also understanding the processes of creating, performing, circulating, and receiving music based on one’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.  Ethnomusicology draws upon a variety of disciplines, including music, anthropology, psychology, folklore, history, and identity studies.  Each of these areas provides greater insights into the psycho-social aspects of study that ethnomusicologists seek to answer, such as how specific musical styles came from specific groups, the creation or taboo of specific musical styles, the messages carried by various musical forms, the relationship between economics, gender, age, religion, etc. with musical genres, and more.  Ultimately, ethnomusicologists study the form and function of music, seeking to understand how music is created and why.

To answer these questions ethnomusicologists employ a variety of ethnographic field methods, including participant observation, interviews, and recording performances.  Historical research to identify and understand music throughout time and place is also regularly used.  Through these methods a variety of different genres, from rock to tube and throat singing, and styles, including Angolan kuduro techno to Guinean praise poetry, have been recorded, studied, and as applicable preserved.

Ethnomusicologists find work through a variety of different avenues, including research, education, and public engagement.  While many ethnomusicologists work as music educators or researchers in primary, secondary, and higher education institutions many are finding work outside of academia.  They work in museums and archives with current or new collections; arts coalitions to elevate the status of musical traditions; media companies in securing new artists, particularly indigenous musical artists; as lobbyists to secure greater funding of music programs through educational and recreational agencies; and more.  Ultimately, the possibilities are endless for individuals interested in music and anthropology, allowing for flexibility and the ability to pursue one’s musical interests further and to be paid to do it.


The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. What is ethnomusicology? 2012. Electronic. 26 September 2019.
Society for Ethnomusicology. About Ethnomusicology . 2016. Electronic. 26 September 2019.
UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. What is Ethnomusicology? 2019. Electronic. 26 September 2019.
University of Washington School of Music. Ethnomusicology. 2019. Electronic. 26 September 2019.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Spotlight on Students: Cultural Relativism & Ethnocentrism (Part 2)

The following is written by students, Maya Collier & Tori Spencer.  This post highlights their work that they completed as part of their requirements in SA 202: Introduction to Anthropology.  Students were given the opportunity to explore a different culture through two lenses: cultural relativism and ethnocentrism, and through this exercise learn about themselves and the other culture. Several students were given the opportunity to have their exemplary work featured on the blog, and the students who provided permission have their work featured here.   Please show your appreciation for her work through the comments.

Turkish coffee is typically served hot and drank on hot days.

By: Maya Collier

In life, an individual will oftentimes judge how a person lives their life because they are not accustomed to the way individuals do something. Being in Michael's situation there are many ways an individual could have come across this situation. We all have our different cultures whether we realize it or not. When learning about someone's culture we react in two different ways we either judge or do not judge. In anthropology, two terms are explored to help define the reactions we come across; ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. The goal of this paper is to explain how cultural relativism differs from ethnocentrism.

We do not hear cultural relativism and ethnocentrism in our everyday vocabulary.   Ethnocentrism is “the assumption that one's way of doing things is correct while dismissing other people's practices or views as wrong or ignorant” (Welsch et al. 11). Cultural relativism is “the moral and intellectual principle that one should withhold judgment about seemingly strange or exotic beliefs and practices” (Welsch et al. 12).

During Michael and Bao's interaction, Michael assumed that because it was a hot day Bao should have ordered an iced coffee, thereby acting in an ethnocentric manner. In American culture, we typically look for things to help cool us down, such as ice cream, icy drinks, and cold smoothies. For Bao it was much different; traditionally where Bao is from the heat is not as humid so he thinks to get a hot drink it will make him sweat allowing his body to cool down. Instead of Michael understanding that Bao's culture was different and taking the time to understand why Bao did not get an iced coffee on a hot day he thought Bao's idea was insane. It is oftentimes hard for people to grasp the ideas of other individuals’ cultures due to how accustomed they are to their values and beliefs. 

During the interaction, if Michael acted in cultural relativism rather than ethnocentric manner Bao would not have been confused and had to justify his choices. Instead of suggesting that Bao should buy an iced coffee, Michael could have shown cultural relativism by asking more about Bao's culture without holding any form of judgment. The whole idea of cultural relativism is keeping an open mind about the different cultures around you. Practicing cultural relativism allows an individual to produce a value-free understanding and interpretations (Welsch et al. 12). 

I was raised in a military environment, along with having many cultural backgrounds in my family. I would like to think of myself as a culturally relativistic thinker as opposed to an ethnocentric thinker. If I was Michel, I would have reacted the same way at first, thinking Bao should get something cold to help him cool off. After remembering where Bao is from and knowing that he probably does not do the same things as me I would begin to ask many questions. I would never think of Bao as insane or judge him for how he does think. 

When I attended Crowder College, I oftentimes gave tours to people all around the world. I met people from the United Kingdom, India, Africa, China, and the Caribbean. During a tour I gave one day the young man asked me, why is everyone so nice here. Naturally, I was confused and tried to grasp an understanding of what he meant, he began to explain to me people in his country have to do things for themselves and nobody helps others as much as they do in America. It made me remember that everyone has different cultures and upbringings around the world. I feel my approach was learning more toward cultural relativism rather than ethnocentrism.

Works Cited
Welsch, Robert L., et al. Cultural Anthropology: Asking Questions about Humanity. Oxford University Press, 2018.


By: Tori Spencer

In chapter one of this course, we studied two different concepts for approaching other cultures. One is called ethnocentrism which is defined as “the assumption that one’s own way of doing things is correct while dismissing other peoples’ practices or views as wrong or ignorant” and can lead to bigotry and intolerance (Welsh, Vivianco, & Fuentes, 2017). This describes the base tendency for most people who have a natural bias that favors their own actions and behaviors. The problem with this notion is that if unchecked, we risk offending other cultures, retain narrow perspectives and remain culturally incompetent. In contrast, cultural relativism seeks a much less abrasive communication techniques. This is defined as the moral and intellectual principle that one should withhold judgment about seemingly strange or exotic beliefs and practices (Welsh, Vivianco, & Fuentes, 2017). Cultural relativism is opposite ethnocentrism as it leads to cultural competence instead of intolerance. Cultural competence is defined as “...the knowledge and interpersonal skills to understand, appreciate and work with individuals and families from cultures other than one’s own...” (Lum, 2003). It is easy to see how cultural relativism is preferred in many social situations over ethnocentrism, and to further support this point, I will analyze the Michael/Bao scenario in order to provide a more complete description of these two dynamics.
The ethnocentric approach to the passage assumes understanding before it is actually established. Michael’s first few sentences contains several such instances. First, there are better ways to say “It’s really hot out here” without referring to Hades, which is not a universal phrase. Some cultures may not discuss Hades in this context and may find it inappropriate. His second sentence is worded in an exaggerated and somewhat accusatory manner. Again, there is another way to ask about Bao’s behavior. Next, Michael corrects Bao by suggesting that he get an iced coffee instead of his choice. The ethnocentric perspective finds it appropriate to suggest that the other person choose the same things without question.
In contrast, the cultural relativist approach would prompt the response that Bao gives about his Turkish customs. If Michael was applying cultural relativism, he would have withheld the implications that Bao was wrong to choose what he did and he would not have suggested something else without hearing Bao speak first. Also, I notice that Bao was rather eager to share his perspective with Michael even after the uncomfortable exchange. I feel that simply asking Bao why he drinks a hot drink on a hot day would suffice to have prompted him to share his culture. This approach seeks to avoid the confusion in Bao who doesn’t understand what Michael is getting at.
I personally prefer the relativistic method. I am a minority that has not always fit into my own culture. I am not immune to ethnocentrism but as a person who grew up being judged even by others of my own culture, I learned at a young age to reserve judgement against others because I did not want to be judged. I have also learned that you do not really know someone just by looking at them. I have been surprised several times by things that people say because I did not expect it but again because I have been on the other side of that, I understand how it feels to be underestimated or misjudged. These experiences lead me to be especially careful to respect the way another person feels even if I don’t agree.
Ethnocentrism also tends to make outsiders feel ostracized, whether the topic in question is something the person can control or not. For example, I spoke with someone at a social event about a trip that I was offered and wanted to take to Los Angeles, California, but I had to decline at the time. The person did not understand why I could not go because her family could just pack up and take vacation when they wanted. She expected that my mother, siblings and I could just take off work together and leave with barely a week’s notice. It was clear that she assumed that all families have that luxury which made for an awkward conversation thereafter because she did not have the experiences that would allow her to consider my position (e.g. having a job, classes and familial responsibilities). It made conversations strained and eventually we lost touch because I felt my lifestyle was always under question even though she was a nice person outside of this particular peeve. ‘Why can’t you just do this? Why wouldn’t you guys just do it that way?’ She unknowingly spoke to me as if I was purposefully adding complications to my life, and at the time I did not confront her because I did not want to end up in a conversation about my family’s finances. I am proud of my family, but it was just an uncomfortable line of questioning, made me defensive and as if she was accusing me of wrongdoing. I know she did not mean it this way, still, I did not want to be in a situation where I had to teach her about other cultures.
In short, personal experience has taught me that ethnocentrism brings a much more restrictive conversation than cultural relativism which facilitates cultural competence. On the other extreme, I have been able to have conversations with a wide variety of individuals and occupations; I can carry conversations with doctors and health care professionals, researchers and students at conferences, international and local students at my university. The approaches of culturally relativistic approach encourages me to inquire about other cultures and people’s lives, which puts others at ease. Everyone remains open, honest and eager to share. This leads to cultural competence of the individual, which I personally define as cultural relativism combined with active involvement with those unlike ourselves.

Works Cited:

Lum, D. (Ed.). (2003). Culturally Competent Practice: A Framework for Understanding Diverse Groups and Justice Issues (6). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole CENGAGE Learning

Welsh, R.E., Vivanco, L.A., & Fuentes, A. (Eds.). (2017). Anthropology: Asking Questions About Human Origins, Diversity, and Culture (11-12). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Spotlight on Students: Cultural Relativism & Ethnocentrism (Part 1)

The following is written by students, Charles Townsend and Rebecca Johanns.  This post highlights their work that they completed as part of their requirements in SA 202: Introduction to Anthropology.  Students were given the opportunity to explore a different culture through two lenses: cultural relativism and ethnocentrism, and through this exercise learn about themselves and the other culture. Several students were given the opportunity to have their exemplary work featured on the blog, and the students who provided permission have their work featured here.   Please show your appreciation for her work through the comments.

Turkish Coffee (Google Images)

By: Charles Townsend
All around the world exists “unique customs and beliefs shared by different groups of people leading to different ways of life,” according to the Oxford Dictionary (2019), and this is known as culture. Culture is often an important part of most individuals' lives as it can define one's interests, worldviews, and ideas. On occasion, these ideas will clash with one another leading to a confusing situation where two individuals may not understand each other's culture. This is expressed in the example of Bao, a Turkish international student, and Michael, an LU staff member. In this example both of them order coffee on a warm day in August, with Michael ordering a cold coffee and Bao ordering a hot coffee, which leads to confusion between both of them that ultimately boils down to differing cultural views. This scenario can be interpreted in several ways however, this paper will look to analyzing this situation from both an ethnocentric and culturally relativistic lens.
To begin, ethnocentrism is defined as “the assumption that one’s way of doing things is correct, while dismissing other people’ practices or views as wrong or ignorant” (Welsch, et al. 11). From the lens of ethnocentrism and looking back to the example of Bao and Michael, Michaels, response to Bao’s order of hot coffee would be seen from this perspective, due to statements like “How can you stand to drink a hot drink on today of all days?!” and “We do drink hot coffee but not on hot days. Why don’t you order an iced coffee?” From the lens of ethnocentrism, Michael is not only assuming his way of doing things is correct; but is also dismissing Bao’s desire for hot coffee under the assumption that he is doing something out of turn. As such, Michael and his actions towards Bao are proper examples of what an ethnocentric reaction to another culture would look like.
Cultural relativism is defined as “the moral and intellectual principle that one should withhold judgement about seemingly strange or exotic beliefs and practices.” (Welsch, et al. 12). Under the cultural relativism lens, it would seem that Bao is demonstrating this to a certain degree by withholding any judgement towards Michael after he orders iced coffee. Even after the Michael confronts Bao about his order of hot coffee, Bao takes the time to explain to Michael why he would order hot coffee on a hot day, telling him that it is a tradition in Turkey to drink hot drinks on a hot day due in part to Turkey’s climate and their perspective on sweating. In this regard, Bao is not making a judgement but is simply explaining his world view to help Michael understand him better.
This sort of situation is relatively minor but that would make sense considering how scenarios such as this can happen at any time there is a cultural clash. From the scenario, we see Michael being potentially insensitive to Bao’s culture by assuming his way is correct and followed by Bao who starts confused but then gradually explains to Michael his actions to further an understanding between each other. I feel that after their conversation the two characters would gain a far greater understanding of where both of them stand, granted that would also have me assume that I know how each character thinks which is something you can never assume. As a biracial man, I have grown up exposed to a multitude of cultures and as such, I interpreted this scenario as two human beings having a simple misunderstanding over a relatively minor issue. I suppose my perspective would more align with cultural relativism, and seeing as no outward harm was caused in this scenario and that hopefully a new perspective was gleaned by both characters in the process.
In the end, the scenario between the two characters of Michael and Bao serves merely as contextual examples of these two very specific terms but also serves to show how small, everyday transactions can be viewed with an anthropological lens. The major lessons would be that ethnocentrism is generally a negative thing due to its implications that only one culture has a correct way of doing something and that, in contrast, cultural relativism is generally positive.
That being said, understanding what ethnocentrism is and learning how to avoid doing it is very positive, especially when you can make up for it by actively practicing cultural relativism.
Regardless, being able to use these two concepts as tools to view the actions of ourselves and others can help bridge a better understanding between cultures and thus making the world a more understanding place.

Works Cited:

1.      Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: Culture. Oxford Learner’s Dictionary//
2.      Welsch, Robert L. et al. Anthropology: Asking Questions about Human Origins, Diversity, and Culture. New York City, Oxford University Press, 2017.


By: Rebecca Johanns

            Culture, as defined by Cambridge Dictionary, is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.” Cultures are found all over the world and vastly range in age and way of living. Even within one region, cultures can vary greatly. In the situation provided, Michael was helping to show Bao the American culture. Bao drank a hot coffee on a hot day, which surprised Michael because that is not something a person from Michael’s American culture would do. Michael’s instant reaction was questioning Bao’s decision and insisting Bao drink iced coffee, which is what people typically drink in mid-Missouri on a hot day. Michael’s ethnocentric view created a misunderstanding of Bao and Turkey that could have been fixed had Michael asked Boa why he chose a hot coffee. This ethnocentric viewpoint generates many misunderstandings in today’s world with everyone including myself but can be easily or somewhat resolved by using a culturally relativistic viewpoint to at least understand the reasons behind other cultures’ ways of life and not to disregard their customs and beliefs.
            Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are two ways to look at the differences between cultures. Ethnocentrism, as defined by LibreTexts, is “the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture.” By looking at cultures with an ethnocentric viewpoint, a person does not allow them self to accept other cultures’ behaviors, beliefs, and customs but rather has the person judging the other’s livelihood based on the person’s own culture and way of living. Cultural relativity, however, is “the principle that an individual person’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture,” (“3.1E”). By this viewpoint, a person is willing to accept another’s way of living as it is without judging the individual based on the person’s own culture and way of life.
            In context of the conversation between Michael and Bao, Michael’s ethnocentric view prevented him from understanding that Bao was just doing what he was taught in his home country Turkey. Because the heat is dry in Turkey, the people do not sweat as easily and much as in Missouri. The climate in Missouri on a hot day is typically very humid, causing a person to sweat; therefore, Michael was accustomed to drinking cold drinks to cool down. Since Michael did not know about the climate of Turkey or the peoples’ habits, he automatically assumed that Bao was crazy and did not know what he was doing. Michael might also conclude that everyone from Turkey is crazy for drinking a hot beverage on a hot day. By keeping an ethnocentric view, Michael limited himself to understanding the actions of Bao and others while also pushing his own culture onto Bao without consciously realizing it.
            With a culturally relativistic view of the situation, however Michael questioned Bao’s actions because Michael does not understand how someone could drink a hot beverage on a hot day, but knowing that Bao comes from a different cultural background, Michael is understanding that Bao is not accustomed to the Missouri culture. Michael suggested the typical iced coffee instead to help show Bao how to keep himself cool in Missouri. Michael should have added an explanation for why hot beverages are not drank on hot days in Missouri to help prevent Bao from having a misunderstanding about the American culture and thinking that Americans do not drink hot coffee. Since it appears Michael did not have very much knowledge on Turkey, he should have also asked Bao why he drinks hot beverages on a hot day. This would help Michael understand Bao more and not assume he and the rest of Turkey are crazy.
            As someone who has seen different cultures first hand, I know the strange feeling when encountering a custom that is completely opposite or different than what I am used to. When I first read the situation, I was surprised by Bao wanting to drink a hot coffee on a hot day. I tried to imagine being in Missouri on a typical hot, humid day and having a hot coffee. For anyone who has ever lived or been in Missouri, they know this is not very enjoyable or refreshing. My ethnocentric view kept me from realizing that in some places around the world, even in dryer climates in America, drinking hot beverages on hot days is actually done and has a valid reason behind it. Once I reread the information about Turkey, however, I understood Bao’s decision and his misunderstanding of the Missouri climate. After I understood Bao more, my viewpoint became more culturally relativistic. I now realize Bao had a misunderstanding based on his culture’s customs and that he was not just ignorant.
            Ethnocentrism prevented Michael from realizing that Bao’s culture is accustomed to a different climate. This lack of knowledge from both parties created a misunderstanding of the two cultures. Knowing that Bao came from Turkey, which has a dry heat climate, Michael could explain to Bao that drinking a hot coffee will not help him to keep cool in Missouri because the climate is humid and that he needs to drink a cold coffee in order to stay cool. This knowledge about Turkey would also prevent Michael from making any false assumptions about Bao and the people of Turkey being crazy or ignorant. Seeing the different outcomes, it becomes clear that keeping a culturally relativistic viewpoint is important when dealing with other cultures in order to prevent any misunderstandings and not hurting one culture or person by pushing foreign ideas and customs onto the other.
Works Cited
“Culture.” Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press, 2019, Website. Accessed 1 Sept. 2019.
“3.1E: Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism.” Social Science LibreTexts. MindTouch, 5 June
2019, Website. Accessed 1 Sept. 2019.